Battling Chelsea show mettle to overcome bruising Watford test

For long, long, periods on Wednesday, it felt like being one of those nights for Chelsea as they faced Watford at Vicarage Road.

A title-chasing powerhouse heads a few miles up the road to face one of the division’s strugglers on a bitter winter’s night and – lo and behold – they get beat; we’ve all seen it before, up and down the football pyramid.

Indeed, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea were thumped 4-1 in the same fixture on a Monday evening in February 2018.

From minute one Thomas Tuchel’s side seemed destined to suffer a similar fate. Watford began the game like men possessed, keeping their visitors penned in with a relentless press. It was a tactic that almost yielded two goals inside five minutes.

First, Joao Pedro saw a low shot destined for the bottom corner blocked by Trevoh Chalobah, before Edouard Mendy was forced into a flying save to tip the ball around the post after Cesar Azpilicueta inadvertently deflected a cross towards his own goal.

Shortly afterwards the game was suspended and the players were taken off the field after a supporter suffered a cardiac arrest in the stand. Thankfully they were stabilised before being taken to hospital, but not even the 35-minute pause was enough to dampen the Hornet’s approach.

Even when Mason Mount gave Chelsea the lead against the run of play 29 minutes in, this did not feel like a match that the Blues would go on to win.

To that point it had been an incredibly disjointed performance from the visitors – a result of heavy rotation and a raft of injuries in the midfield that meant Saul Niguez and Ruben Loftus-Cheek started in the centre. Neither was on their game, surrendering the ball and being eaten alive in the midfield battle with Moussa Sissoko.

At the back, Watford’s press saw Chalobah and Antonio Rudiger shed their usual swagger and regularly squander possession or nervously play backwards, while others were clearly not up to the physical battle that the likes of Sissoko, William Troost-Ekong and Tom Cleverley were relishing.

Almost inevitably the equaliser arrived shortly before half-time, and it was a goal that laid bare Chelsea’s deficiencies on the night. Sissoko latched onto Loftus-Cheek as he attempted to pirouette in the middle of the park, stealing the ball and driving into opposition territory. He fed Emmanuel Dennis, who was afforded the space to squeeze the ball through Rudiger’s legs and into the corner.

In recent years gone by, Chelsea would not have found a winner – and perhaps they would even have slipped to a defeat. But – just as thousands of supporters across the globe reached for their phones to slag off the manager’s team selection and tactics on Twitter – this iteration of the Blues demonstrated they are made of sterner stuff.

With just over 15 minutes remaining, Mount – the only Chelsea player who matched Watford’s intensity and bite throughout – did superbly to carry the ball to the byline and produce a pinpoint cut-back to substitute Hakim Ziyech, who whipped his finish into the roof of the net.

It was a winning goal that knocked the stuffing out of Watford, who finally relinquished and could do no more to get something from the match. It was a winning goal that was the difference between Chelsea remaining top of the Premier League and slipping to third as Man City and Liverpool both won on the night.

This was far from vintage Chelsea. Indeed, it was probably up there with their worst displays of the season, but we all know how the cliché goes about top teams that are capable of grinding out results.

At the end of every title-winning campaign there are always certain matches that are looked back upon as ‘defining’. This could well be one of them for Tuchel’s men come May.

For more from Krishan Davis, follow him on Twitter!

Liverpool hitting their stride heading into crucial festive fixtures

As a smattering of Everton fans trickled out of Goodison Park just 20 minutes into Wednesday night’s Merseyside derby, Liverpool’s 2-0 lead seemed like the foreword to a historic humbling.

Yet, by the end of a woefully one-sided 4-1 trampling, the record books only had to flicked back to the mid-1980s to locate a commensurate away win for the Reds at Goodison Park.

Barely a minute from kickoff Liverpool already had the pessimistic Everton faithful drawing a sharp intake of breath. Joel Matip sauntered into criminal isolation inside the penalty area but flicked Trent Alexander-Arnold’s corner narrowly past the post.

A matter of seconds later Andros Townsend was rapidly acquainted with the blistering intensity of Everton’s visitors. The winger’s limp pass was snaffled up by Diogo Jota, allowing him to whip in a fierce cross that Mohamed Salah awkwardly volleyed wide.

Jordan Henderson eventually broke the deadlock, sweetly curling in the first of Liverpool’s four that took their tally to a scarcely believable 43 league goals for the season already. Seven teams couldn’t match that total in the entirety of the 2020/21 campaign. Liverpool themselves only scored 42 times in a 42-game 1971/72 season that saw them finish fifth.

Europe’s most prolific side can (and make a point of ensuring that they do) strike from any angle. In stark contrast to the key-hole precision of Henderson’s opener, Salah swept down the pitch like a knife through butter for Liverpool’s second and third.

Steaming into Everton’s half unobstructed for both goals, Salah benefitted from what Jurgen Klopp has previously described as ‘the best playmaker’ – a well-oiled press.

Having regained the ‘aggression’ Klopp demands of his sides after a reality-check of a 3-2 defeat away to West Ham at the start of November, Liverpool have been firing on all cylinders off the ball as much as on it of late.

A combination of Jota and Thiago Alcantara swarmed the skittish Ben Godfrey wading out of Everton’s half inside the opening 20 minutes, shovelling the ball to Henderson who sprang Salah clear.

Supposedly the world’s seventh-best player (he’s clearly top three) took matters into his own hands, or boots – or rather, out of Seamus Coleman’s control – for Liverpool’s third. Pouncing upon a loose touch in the centre circle, Salah burst clear of the Everton skipper before rolling his shot tantalisingly out of Pickford’s reach.

Demarai Gray’s crisply taken consolation sandwiched between these strikes broke a run of more than five hours without conceding for Liverpool. While there may well be some areas – particularly in the pesky half-spaces – for the Reds to tighten up, only Chelsea and Manchester City have conceded fewer Premier League goals so far this term.

Diogo Jota applied the finishing touches on a comfortable evening, netting the fourth goal of the night and the fourth in his past three outings as he provides some comfort that the scoring tap may not suddenly run dry when Sadio Mane and Salah depart for international duty.

The much-feared Africa Cup of Nations doesn’t start until the second week of January, the other side of a typically congested festive fixture list. The midweek derby was the first of nine games Liverpool are faced with in December alone.

However, if the Reds continue to exude the skill, guile and efficiency of their recent displays, a match every couple of days will simply serve as extra opportunity to marvel at this high-spec machine in full flow.

Steven Gerrard and Aston Villa can take plenty of positives from defeat to Manchester City

Steven Gerrard is a born winner – that, we can all agree on.

Losing will never suffice for the man who won two FA Cups, a UEFA Cup and a Champions League (amongst other titles) as a player for Liverpool and, of course, the Scottish Premiership with Rangers last season.

That attitude has clearly been transferred into his newest role as Aston Villa head coach, where he began by winning his first two outings – a 2-0 win over Brighton before beating Crystal Palace 2-1.

While those two fixtures presented sturdy tests against teams Villa need to be pulling ahead of if they’re to progress under their new boss (tests which he passed), his third outing was against a different beast altogether.

Against an irrepressible Manchester City – who evidently have serious ambitions of finally achieving a Premier League and Champions League double – there was little expectation of Gerrard becoming the first Villa boss in history to win his first three games in charge.

The home fans were, as it turned out, right to be driven more by hope than expectation on the night, eventually losing 2-1 to a devastating City side. Their dominant quality became evident within the opening two minutes, by which time the visitors had two clear-cut opportunities to pull ahead.

Steven Gerrard, Morgan SansonSteven Gerrard, Morgan Sanson

There was plenty for Aston Villa to be pleased about despite losing to Manchester City / Naomi Baker/GettyImages

In truth, the first half was utter domination. The staggering control, composure and ruthlessness contained within every facet of Pep Guardiola’s side’s play simply overwhelmed Villa.

As a result, by the halfway point, City were 2-0 up. The first goal was a result of the overloads on the wings, giving Raheem Sterling the opportunity and subsequent confidence to run his full-back ragged and eventually pull back for Ruben Dias to score.

The second goal was born out of a surprising incoherence in Villa’s collective pressing and a defensive imbalance. Clearly trying to show initiative and press high up the pitch, Gerrard’s men were undone with three passes from box to box.

Ryiad Mahrez wriggled out of a tight spot and released the ball to Fernandinho, who in turn sent a raking ball into the channel for Gabriel Jesus, who then lofted a perfect cross into the path of Bernardo Silva to finish with a gorgeous first-time volley.

Boom. The perfect counter attack, made to look effortless and easy as a result of Villa’s incongruous defensive shapes.

You’re probably wondering where on earth the positives can be found, right?

Well, those would appear throughout the second half.

Clearly coming out for the second period with an amended shape, an altered attitude and an added intensity, it was the home side who dominated for large parts.

It took the hosts under 90 seconds to get back into the game courtesy of a brilliant Ollie Watkins finish. Thereafter, City may have continued to enjoy the lion’s share of possession, but it was Villa who looked the more threatening.

Douglas Luiz was pulled into a wider area to, firstly, stifle the wide threat of Joao Cancelo and Mahrez, and secondly, find more space to stamp his creative mark on proceedings. The Brazilian was key to Villa’s dominance in the second period, spreading play superbly and eventually leaving the field with five key passes to his name – including the assist to the aforementioned Watkins strike.

The other significant tweaks proved to be moving the wide forwards closer to Watkins, allowing Villa much more opportunity for control when firing the ball into their frontman and therefore the tools to build play much higher up the pitch.

Whereas Marvelous Nakamba was sitting deep before the interval, he was pressing aggressively during the second half, for example, therefore taking the game to City rather than inviting pressure.

Generally speaking, half time was the turning point in the match. It showed that Gerrard knows what he’s doing at this level and, actually, is able to compete with the best in the world.

His decisive and brave management completely altered the momentum of Wednesday night’s clash and, were it not for youngster Carney Chukwuemeka fluffing his lines when one-on-one with Ederson, the Villans would most likely have been celebrating a point against the Champions.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. But the fact that Villa can feel disappointment at a narrow 2-1 defeat to this City side is proof of the progression and shift already occurring under Gerrard – and Wednesday night provided many more positives to take from Villa’s new regime.

James Maddison’s revival continues in Leicester’s draw with Southampton

From St Mary’s – James Maddison had an eventful summer.

Not only was his beautiful mug slapped up on billboards across the country as part of a campaign for a well-known supplier of questionable clobber, he was also the subject of a protracted transfer saga involving Arsenal.

The story dominated social and print media for the first two thirds of the window, with Arsenal eventually turning their noses up at Leicester’s eye-watering valuation and settling on Martin Odegaard.

Since then, the two parties have endured remarkably contrasting fortunes. Arsenal seem to be on the up. Their young squad, though still very rough around the edges, seems like great fun to be a part of.

Meanwhile, Leicester have been enduring a frustrating season. Injuries and poor form, coupled with a rise in expectations and spending after a terrific few years, even led to the supporters jeering their side off the pitch after a recent defeat to European champions Chelsea.

No player has personified the Foxes’ drop off more than Maddison.

Just a few years back, there were actual, 100% real conversations between serious football thinkers over whether he or drinking buddy Jack Grealish was the better player.

These days, Grealish is the most expensive British footballer of all time, while Maddison is not even a guaranteed starter for a stuttering Leicester side.

At least, he wasn’t until recently.

You see, Maddison has been undergoing a mini-revival of late. He netted in Leicester’s vital Europa League victory over Legia Warsaw on Thursday and then stole the show to ruin Claudio Ranieri’s return to the King Power Stadium, popping up with a pair of assists and another goal.

Against Southampton on Wednesday night, Maddison lit up the bleak south coast sky, putting in another display that suggested we might be witnessing a fully-blown, hairspray-powered renaissance – not just a mini-revival.

Right from the get go it was clear Maddison was positioning himself as the his side’s sole creative conductor in the absence of Youri Tielemans. His body language was expressive, as it always is, and at times he seemed to be attempting to pull him teammates into the positions he desired using telekinesis.

James Maddison, Kiernan Dewsbury-HallJames Maddison, Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall

What a display from Maddison / Michael Steele/GettyImages

He also found space between the lines of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s rigid 4-4-2 structure with ease and always looked to make something happen when he received the ball.

Thus, it was no surprise that he was at the centre of Leicester’s equaliser, after they had gone 1-0 down inside just three minutes following some criminal defending from a set piece – again.

Picking up the ball on the right-hand side, he somehow managed to wriggle into enough space to get a cross in. Southampton failed to clear and eventually Jonny Evans produced the archetypal centre-back’s finish to make it 1-1.

Maddison dropped reminders of his joyous talent on the ball throughout proceedings and got the goal he deserved just after the break. Again, his close control was key with the midfielder picking the ball up on the left this time, sitting his marker down with a wicked fake shot and powering past Alex McCarthy.

Twice Maddison created a platform for his teammates to secure the three points but they could not thank him for his efforts, with Harvey Barnes and Jamie Vardy missing huge chances at the end to win it.

Although this was not a vintage Foxes performance, their playmaker-in-chief can come away very satisfied with his night’s work.

His magic is going to be keen with Leicester having to contend with potentially season-defining games against Aston Villa and Napoli over the next eight days.

For more from Matt O’Connor-Simpson, follow him on Twitter!

Premier League RECAP: Liverpool dominate Merseyside derby, Chelsea & Man City secure narrow wins

The ever-popular winter schedule is upon us now, with a lovely round of midweek Premier League action underway for gameweek 14 of the season.

Tuesday’s games are now in the history books – Leeds beating Crystal Palace and Newcastle drawing with Norwich – but there’s still a feast of football to look forward to as some of the tastiest fixtures in the English top flight are played out.

Liverpool dominated the Merseyside derby on Wednesday night, while title rivals Chelsea and Man City both secured hard-fought wins.

Manchester United and Arsenal butt heads to round things off on Thursday evening.

Here’s everything you need to know about all ten fixtures:

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Newcastle are waiting for their first win / Shaun Botterill/GettyImages

Newcastle’s winless start to the season stretched to 13 games after a 1-1 draw with Norwich at Carrow Road.

Eddie Howe’s side got off to the worst possible start as Ciaran Clark was shown a straight red card for a professional foul, having got himself into all sorts of trouble with a terrible lapse in concentration.

But Newcastle were able to take the lead despite being down to 10-men as Callum Wilson converted a penalty just after the hour mark. However, Dean Smith’s Canaries battled hard for an equaliser, and were rewarded for their endeavours when Teemu Pukki rifled a tremendous volley into the roof of Martin Dubravka’s net.

You can read 90min’s player ratings for Newcastle vs Norwich here.

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Raphinha’s late penalty earned Leeds a vital win / Jan Kruger/GettyImages

Leeds earned just their third win of the Premier League season as a stoppage-time Raphinha penalty saw off Crystal Palace.

In an entertaining game, both sides had opportunities to break the deadlock, but wasteful finishing – from Christian Benteke in particular – kept the scores level. That was until the dying embers of the game, when Marc Guehi was penalised for handball – Kevin Friend awarding a penalty after intervention from VAR.

Raphinha stepped up for Leeds, and the Brazilian kept his cool from the spot to beat Vicente Guaita in the Palace goal.

You can read 90min’s player ratings for Leeds vs Crystal Palace here.

Hakim ZiyechHakim Ziyech

Hakim Ziyech got the winner / Marc Atkins/GettyImages

Play was halted for 30 minutes due to a medical emergency in the crowd at Vicarage Road.

When the game restarted it was all Watford, but Chelsea took the lead against the run of play on the half-hour mark through Mason Mount.

The home side weren’t to be deterred by that goal however, making it 1-1 going into half-time thanks to Emmanuel Dennis.

The second half was proving to be pretty evenly contested until Hakim Ziyech gave the European champions the lead with 15 minutes left to play.

You can read 90min’s player ratings for the match here.

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Neal Maupay scored a stunning equaliser / Julian Finney/GettyImages

West Ham hit the ground running in this one, with Tomas Soucek nodding home in the fifth minute. In truth, it was pretty shocking goalkeeping from Robert Sanchez.

It was pretty much all Brighton thereafter and they finally – deservedly – got their equaliser in the dying embers of the game via a Neal Maupay stunner.

You can read 90min’s player ratings here.

Hwang Hee-chan, Matthew LowtonHwang Hee-chan, Matthew Lowton

Burnley held Wolves to a draw / David Rogers/GettyImages

Wolves were dominant at Molineux but once again their goalscoring issues denied them a deserved victory over Burnley as they passed up the change to go fifth.

Adama Traore came closest to breaking the deadlock, seeing his shot deflect onto the underside of the crossbar in the first half.

James Maddison, Kiernan Dewsbury-HallJames Maddison, Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall

Maddison tied things up / Michael Steele/GettyImages

Jan Bednarek gave Southampton a shock early lead – with the defender scoring in the third minute of the game after a bit of a goal-mouth scramble.

Leicester clawed their way back into the game via another centre-back – this time Jonny Evans – who latched on to a loose ball in the box to make it 1-1 in the 22nd minute.

The parity didn’t last long however, as ten minutes later the Saints were back ahead thanks to Che Adams.

The Foxes looked much better at the start of the second half and deservedly made it 2-2 via James Maddison in the 50th minute.

You can read player ratings from this one here.

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Bernardo Silva scored a stunner for Man City / Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/GettyImages

Despite Steven Gerrard’s side’s best efforts, Man City took the lead at Villa Park in the 27th minute thanks to Ruben Dias’ fine finish.

And just before half-time it was 2-0 to City with the in-form Bernardo Silva bagging an excellent volley.

Villa weren’t deterred by going two down, and grabbed a goal back to make it 2-1 inside the first few minutes of the second half, with Ollie Watkins netting at the near post.

You can read player ratings for Aston Villa vs Man City here.

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Liverpool ran riot in the Merseyside derby / Laurence Griffiths/GettyImages

Liverpool could’ve been four or five up at Goodison Park inside the opening ten minutes – but they got one goal at least. Jordan Henderson finished off a lovely move from the Reds, curling the ball brilliantly into the top corner from the edge of the box.

Soon after it was two. Mohamed Salah (who else?) side-footed the second past Jordan Pickford following some horrific defending from Lucas Digne.

Despite being bloody awful, Everton clawed their way back into the game via Demarai Gray in the 38th minute.

The scoreline started to reflect the actual game a bit more with 25 to go as Salah scored his second of the evening to make it 3-1.

Diogo Jota then made it 4-1 with a wonderful strike in the 79th minute.

You can read 90min’s player ratings from the Merseyside derby here.

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Conte is still learning about Spurs / James Williamson – AMA/GettyImages

When is kick off? 19:30 (GMT)
Where is the match being played? Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
TV channel/live stream? Amazon Prime Video (UK), Peacock Premium (US)

The next instalment of ‘Are Tottenham actually any good?’ will see them host Brentford in the first of Thursday’s games.

Antonio Conte’s side saw their trip to Burnley postponed, meaning that defeat to Mura remains fresh in the memory and they will be absolutely desperate to banish those demons with a good result here.

However, Brentford are tricky customers. They’re obviously not the best team in the division, but they’ve done a great job of making life difficult for almost everybody they’ve faced. They’ll make things tough for Spurs, but you can’t help but feel as though they’ll come up short.

Prediction: Tottenham 2-1 Brentford

You can read 90min’s full preview of Tottenham vs Brentford here.

Mikel ArtetaMikel Arteta

Arteta watches on from the sidelines / Richard Heathcote/GettyImages

When is kick off? 20:15 (GMT)
Where is the match being played? Old Trafford
TV channel/live stream? Amazon Prime Video (UK), Peacock Premium (US)

Saving the best for last (maybe), gameweek 14 ends with the heavyweight clash between Manchester United and Arsenal.

Will this be Ralf Rangnick’s first game in charge of United? No, as he’s still waiting for the necessary work permit.

Michael Carrick’s United weren’t pretty last time out against Chelsea but they still managed an impressive draw, while Arsenal got back to winning ways with a comfortable victory over Newcastle at the weekend.

Arsenal are undoubtedly the form side, but United’s home advantage could be crucial here.

Prediction: Man Utd 1-0 Arsenal

You can read 90min’s full preview of Man Utd vs Arsenal here.